Ron Burchett is kicking off his 50th year of getting paid to play music with a concert at the Local Vine on the Indianola Square Friday, Feb. 8, at 5:30 p.m.
“I’ve been playing probably 52 years,” he said. “But I got paid for the first time 50 years ago, so that’s where I started my count.”
Burchett got a guitar when he was 11, he recalls, and started teaching himself to play.
“That made everyone run for cover when you’re that young,” he said. “But I liked music, and in the 60s there was all kinds of rock music going on, and I just wanted to join in.”
After about six months of practice, something odd happened. “I started to get the hang of it,” he said.
His parents were thrilled.
“They had no plan about what I was going to be able to do, because my school was so bad,” he said. “They were really thrilled ‘the boy can do something!’ They encouraged me every inch of the way after that.”
His first paid gig came with the East Village Others. “We got $15,” he recalled. “There were four of us and we had to figure out how to split $15.”
It was the first of almost 20 bands he has played with, from the Dead Chicken Rabbit to the Wild Ride, Con Brio, Heartland Express and Warren County Line. Most of the bands have long vanished, but Con Brio was added to the Iowa Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.
Burchett’s song list ranges from The Beatles and John Prine to Kenny Loggins, Jimmy Buffet and Bob Dylan.
“I can never categorize it for sure,” he said. “It’s a little country blues, a little jazz, a little this and that.”
He plays mostly by himself these days.
“Playing with a band, you have to do stuff that people have heard of,” he said. “Where I am, I can do what I like.”
And that’s music — although it rarely has paid the bills.
“I’ve had 20 other jobs,” he said. “But they were always just labor jobs and they never lasted very long.”
Right now, he plays from time to time at Confluence Brewery in Des Moines and can be found at Trostel’s Dish and Trostel’s Greenbrier, Vino 209 and the downtown farmer’s market.
Far more than money, Burchett has gathered memories, like playing at the Hi Baby Lounge with Bob Pace, who plays with The Dangerous Blues Band and other groups at the Gas Lamp and other Des Moines locations, and others.
“The owner was Lou McCormick, he was a bass player so he called up some musicians he knew and we went down there and played,” Burchett remembered. “It was mostly to an empty house, but he paid us.”
There are songs Burchett still loves to do, and those he hopes never to do again. One Johnny Cash song came close to saving his life one night when playing with Con Brio.
The Ankeny Saddle Club had hired them, thinking they were a country western band, Burchett said. Con Brio considered itself more country rock.
“We started doing our regular show, the Byrds and all that and they got mad,” he remembered.
The crowd was going to throw the band out when Burchett piped up. “I know a Johnny Cash song! And they said ‘oh, you’re all right then!’ So we learned the ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ on the stage there and did that song. And they decided they liked us.”
For a time Burchett didn’t play much, but he’s gone back at it in recent years.
“I worked at it really hard the past three or four years to do this single thing again,” he said. “It feels like I can play better now than I ever could.”
He knows that, someday, his public performance days will end, but he says he will never entirely stop playing.
“I get slower all the time,” he said. “There will come a time when the guitar fingers won’t move any more, but I’ll still be playing somewhere, even if it’s just the back yard.”